What’s sauce for the legislative goose

It’s pretty clear that the new Pennsylvania Congressional districts drawn up by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (PSC) will be used in the 2018 elections. Some Republicans, however, are not at all happy that the court stepped into the district mapping process, and have moved to impeach four of the five Democratic judges who ruled that the maps used since 2012 were unconstitutionally gerrymandered.

The irony here is that the gerrymandered districts that existed before were possible only because of the unique role the court plays in the redistricting process. In the wake of the national census, which occurs every 10 years, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the state’s House and Senate get together to draw new districts. If they can’t agree on the choice of a fifth person to chair the committee—and in 2011, they could not—the court steps in and appoints the chair. In 2011, there was a Republican majority on PSC, and they appointed a Republican to the post. The three Republicans on the committee agreed to maps that handed Republican candidates 13 of the state’s 18 U.S. Congressional seats, even though Democrats enjoy a slight advantage over Republicans in terms of registered voters in the state.

In the 2015 elections, Democrats were motivated; they made a concentrated effort to get their candidates onto the PSC, and they were successful; Democrats won the three open seats, resulting in a Democratic majority on the court. So when the Pennsylvania League of Women voters and 18 residents sued the state over gerrymandering, the PSC majority was sympathetic to their cause. Not surprisingly, the ruling that the 2011 map was unconstitutional broke down along party lines in the court.  

The new map drawn by the court is more respectful of traditional redistricting principals such as compactness and the avoidance of dividing municipalities. This shows itself in the district that now includes Wayne and Pike Counties. For many years, the cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, which have large numbers of Democratic voters, were deliberately carved out of the district, and it remained a safe Republican seat. Now, the district is more compact and includes those cities—and if voter registration is any indication, it is no longer a safe Republican district. This new PA Eighth Congressional District has about 230,000 Democrats and about 146,000 Republicans. To be sure, many of the Democrats are fairly conservative and voted for President Donald Trump; still, Democratic candidates would appear to have an edge.

The Democratic candidate who is running in the district is Matt Cartwright, an incumbent, currently serving in a district that includes Scranton. There are also three Republicans who will be facing off in a primary in May: Joseph Peters, a former prosecutor; John Chrin, a businessman; and Robert Kuniegel, a former corrections officer.

As mentioned earlier, some Republicans in Harrisburg are rather upset with the high court, and have filed papers to begin the impeachment process. However, Chief Justice Tom Saylor, a Republican, released a statement last week about the development. He said, “As chief justice of Pennsylvania, I am very concerned by the reported filing of impeachment resolutions against justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania related to the Court’s decision about congressional redistricting.

“Threats of impeachment directed against justices because of their decision in a particular case are an attack upon an independent judiciary, which is an essential component of our constitutional plan of government.”  

So far Republican leadership in Harrisburg has not taken up the issue, and it’s not clear that impeachment will advance in any meaningful way. Still, the appearance is that those Republicans are saying, it’s OK for the court to put its thumb on the scale when the result benefits Republicans; it’s not OK for the court to do that if it’s going to benefit Democrats.

In the coming election, the new map should benefit Pennsylvania Congressional Democrats, but not nearly as much as the previous map benefitted Republicans. Most analysts say rather than a 13 to five split, the new map should result in maybe nine or 10 Republican wins and eight or nine Democratic wins. In a state with slightly more registered Democrats than Republicans, that kind of split seems much more reasonable.


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